Chinese tourists gather in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, on Sept. 9. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

The original Tibetan village here was bulldozed five years ago. What has replaced it is Lulang Folk Village, a postcard-ready replica, a Disney-esque version of an age-old settlement in the high ­forest.

Grand, ornate buildings in ­Tibetan style, built by Chinese real estate developers but still vacant, are here, and an empty primary school, and a brand-new luxury hotel offering rooms for $150 to $1,000 a night. Soon Chinese restaurant owners will move in, and Chinese tour groups will follow.

“Lulang is paradise on earth, located on the roof of the world,” said community volunteer He Yilin. This is Tibet sanitized for tourists from the rest of China, complete with Mandarin-speaking guides, Chinese food and a whitewashed view of Chinese rule.

While foreign tourists still face restrictions on travel to Tibet, ­domestic tourists are arriving in extraordinary numbers. The government is investing heavily and eagerly promoting tourism as a pillar of the economy.

“Tourism is the new engine for development in Tibet,” Penpa Tashi, vice chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, told reporters shortly before the glitzy opening ceremony of the Third China Tibet Tourism and Culture Expo in the capital city, Lhasa, this September.

China is bolstering the tourism infrastructure in Tibet as an estimated 24 million Chinese tourists will visit the region next year. But critics say domestic tourism is being used to bind Tibet more closely to China, trivializing its culture, marginalizing its people and polluting its pristine environment. (Simon Denyer,Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The aim, he said, is to create the tourism infrastructure and services that will turn Tibet into a “world-class tourism destination.”

Yet critics say domestic tourism is being used in another way, as part of a grand economic and strategic plan to bind Tibet ever more tightly into China’s embrace — in the process trivializing its culture, marginalizing its people and polluting its pristine environment.

“It is very similar to how the United States treated its developing West 100 years ago,” said P. Christiaan Klieger, a cultural anthropologist, historian and author. “They are commodifying the native people and bringing them out as an ethnic display for the consumption of people back east.”

Elliot Sperling, an Indiana University professor, says China has a narrow, materialist view of development as the solution to all ­Tibet’s problems, and warned that tourism risks turning parts of ­Tibet into a “Lama Disneyland” where locals are outnumbered by Han Chinese.

Chinese troops moved into ­Tibet in 1951, two years after the Communist Party rose to power in Beijing. Many Tibetans, who say their land was largely independent from China, still fiercely resent that takeover and complain of ­religious, cultural and linguistic repression, as well as economic and social discrimination. Others, including Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, have fled into exile abroad.

These days, large parts of Lhasa feel increasingly like any modern Chinese city, with hundreds of old buildings knocked down to make way for shopping malls and apartment houses for immigrants, drawn from China’s ethnic Han majority.

Now Tibetans have to adjust to a new flood of arrivals, after China opened a train route across the high-altitude Tibetan plateau, from Xining to Lhasa, in 2006.

Chinese tourism statistics on ­Tibet are opaque and confusing, but one count suggests that around 8 million tourists will come this year. That’s a roughly 12-fold rise since the first train arrived. Officials predict a further rise, of 50 percent, by 2020.

That will dwarf the permanent population of just over 3 million people, and attract even more immigrants from elsewhere in China to build infrastructure and support the tourism industry, experts say.

The government has already started to build another major train route, from the major western city of Chengdu to Lhasa, an ambitious project traversing 1,000 miles across some of the world’s most mountainous terrain.

Multinational companies are arriving fast, too: Lhasa already boasts an imposing Intercontinental Hotel, as well as a Sheraton, a St. Regis and a Shangri-La. Officials predict 10 more luxury hotels there by 2020.

Foreign visitors are less welcome: They have to obtain special permits and visit on organized tours, and currently make up just over 1  percent of arrivals.

Penpa Tashi said the central government had ordered that ­Tibet should be “open to the world,” and promised that restrictions on foreign visitors would be eased as soon as the region had upgraded its tourist infrastructure.

What he didn’t say: Backpackers have been blamed by China for supporting the cause of Tibetan nationalism, and for informing the world about Tibetan uprisings in the late 1980s. Foreign journalists are completely barred, except on rare government tours.

The real reason for the restrictions, says the Tibetan government-in-exile in the Indian town of Dharamsala, is “to hide the actual reality in Tibet.”

By contrast, domestic visitors are a much safer bet.

Some are inspired by a sense of patriotic duty, others by a renewed interest in Buddhism or increasingly by a growing fascination with an “exotic” people living in a timeless “Shangri-La.”

“I am not Buddhist, but we have Buddha in our heart,” said Zhu Chunhua, a young Chinese woman from the eastern province of Jiangsu, photographing a friend after turning prayer wheels outside a small temple in Lhasa. “The local people are very simple and pure.”

Already, Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest site, the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, is bursting at the seams with Han tourists, who flock through its darkened shrine in droves before emerging onto the roof and into the light in a flurry of selfies. In the process, some of the temple’s magic seems to dissipate.

Some are respectful of what they are seeing, but Tibetans on social media complain of cameras thrust in pilgrims’ faces and of sacred prayer flags trampled underfoot.

On a recent visit, one tour guide committed a grave breach of religious etiquette by walking the wrong way around a statue of Buddha.

At the landmark Potala Palace, a tourist stood beside a sign banning photographs, taking a photo, while a Tibetan tour guide expressed exasperation at how little Han tourists knew or understood.

“Lhasa has been turned from a holy place of pilgrimage into a tourist site,” said Tibetan writer Woeser, who last visited the city three years ago. Most tourist shops in the Tibetan old town are owned by Han Chinese, she said, and many supposedly Tibetan artifacts are manufactured in other parts of China.

So is Tibetan culture being swamped?

Wang Songping, deputy director of the Tibet Tourism Development Commission, says tourism has both positive and negative effects everywhere in the world. But the influx of money will encourage people to protect “their intangible cultural heritage,” he argues, and help transform the economy in places like Lulang “from cutting down trees to watching trees.”

Tourism accounts for a fifth of the local economy and provides 320,000 jobs in Tibet, Wang said, with some 97,000 herders and farmers now involved in the industry. Hundreds of residents have been given government grants to convert their houses for tourist homestays.

Some Tibetans do benefit from tourism, and there is a growing number of small tour agencies offering “responsible,” eco-friendly travel for foreigners and better-educated domestic tourists.

But mostly, critics say, Tibetans are neither consulted nor empowered as their land is transformed. The top jobs and most of the profits are being cornered by companies and people from elsewhere in China — fueling the kind of inequality and resentment that contributed to riots in Tibet in 2008.

One young man, who looked over his shoulder to check he was not being watched before speaking to a small group of reporters in Lhasa, said tourism was good for the economy — but then complained that Han Chinese visitors did not always respect sacred mountains and holy sites. “Many tourists move rocks and run anywhere inside temples,” he said. “It’s not good.”

Lulang Folk Village sits at 12,000 feet above sea level in what officials have designated the “Switzerland of the East,” a region of forested mountains in southeastern Tibet near the Indian border.

It has been built by some of China’s biggest real estate companies, with help from the southern provincial government of Guangdong, ostensibly as part of efforts to spread the nation’s wealth to its poorer hinterlands.

Yet Han Chinese construction workers have done most of the building. Local Tibetans, one worker claimed, simply do not have the skills.

Tibetans who lost their homes in the original village of Zhaxigang will be given new accommodation here, officials said, but their opportunities to make money may be limited. Restaurants in a nearby site are overwhelmingly run by Han Chinese.

“Some shops will be run by people from inland, but some will be run by local people,” said Tu Hang, a Foreign Ministry official from Nyingchi prefecture, told reporters on a guided tour, adding,
with unconscious condescension about Tibetans: “They will have shops to sell small things like biscuits and sweet tea.”

But those modest opportunities may be scant consolation for many Tibetans, who worry that their land is drowning in the influx from the east.

There are two problems with the Han Chinese, one Tibetan said. “The first one is they’re always brainwashing us. Always,” he said. “And the second problem is they just keep coming here, more and more.”

Congcong Zhang, Gu Jinglu and Jin Xin contributed to this report.

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